Brain Pickings

Changing New York: Berenice Abbott’s Stunning Black-and-White Photos from the 1930s


A breathtaking time-capsule of this ageless, ever-changing city.

New York City loves its streets, loves its dogs, loves its heat waves, loves its apocalyptic fictions — but, above else, loves its timeless dignity. Between 1935 and 1939, photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991) made 307 black-and-white prints of New York City that endure as some of the most iconic images of city’s changing face. In advance of the 1939 World’s Fair, 200 of them were gathered in Berenice Abbott: Changing New York (public library), along with a selection of variant images, line drawings, period maps, and background essays — a lavish time-capsule of urban design organized in eight geographical sections, documenting the social, architectural, and cultural history of the city.

Many of the photographs are now in the public domain and have been made available online by the New York Public Library. Here are some favorite images Abbott took between November 1935 and May 1936, as part of the Federal Art Project (FAP) — a Depression-era government program related to the Works Progress Administration, enlisting unemployed artists and workers in creative projects across advertising, graphic design, illustration, photography, and publishing.

Stone and William Street, Manhattan

Gasoline Station, Tenth Avenue and 29th Street, Manhattan

Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street, Manhattan

Ferry, West 23rd Street, Manhattan

Henry Street, Manhattan

Fulton Street Dock, Manhattan skyline, Manhattan

Cliff and Ferry Street, Manhattan

23rd Street Surface Car, West 23rd Street, Manhattan

Oldest apartment house in New York City, 142 East 18th Street, Manhattan

Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, Manhattan

'El', Second and Third Avenue lines, Bowery taken from Division St., Manhattan

Lyric Theatre, Third Avenue between 12th and 13th street, Manhattan

And, hey, is that time-traveling Don Draper?

Department of Docks and Police Station, Pier A, North River, Manhattan

A few blocks around my studio:

Jay Street, No. 115, Brooklyn

Brooklyn Bridge, Water and Dock Streets, looking southwest, Brooklyn

Warehouse, Water and Dock Streets, Brooklyn

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